April 11, 2012

False Dichotomy, or Real, Though Annoying, Dichotomy?

Apropos of his participation in a recent panel discussion, Monte Cook contemplates the opposition between crunch and fluff in roleplaying games. He comes to several wise conclusions, including that the fun side of any argument is whichever one will allow you to debate Jonathan Tweet. Where the central question is concerned, he says:

I really do think it's a false dichotomy. I think that, for whatever reason having to do with human nature, people like to take parts of a whole and declare favorites, or rank importance. But the dichotomy is often false. To declare that the chips in chocolate chip cookies are more important than the cookie is to ignore the beautiful synthesis of chocolate and cookie. A handful of chocolate chips is okay, but all melty inside a freshly baked, still warm cookie? That's much better.

I wish that crunch vs. fluff was a false dichotomy, but unfortunately it’s not, in that it reflects a genuine and hard-to-bridge gap between player taste groups. To extend Monte’s metaphor past its sell-by date, we as game designers are trying to create the perfect chocolate chip recipe for a crew of eaters, some of whom like both dough and chocolate, a vocal faction who only care about the cookie, and a counterpart group that barely tolerates the chocolate.

You can see the opposition at work in the framing itself: “crunch vs. fluff” is not only a frustrating dichotomy, but a stacked one. The terms (which Monte doesn’t like either) presuppose that character, setting and emotional elements are just fluff—a disposable, if not useless outer layer on top of the real stuff, the crunch.

A similar, older framing is likewise stacked, in the other direction. The old “roleplaying vs. roll-playing” opposition sought to privilege character portrayal over a focus on mechanics and tactics.

Like so many other conceptual frameworks people have devised to describe their RPG experiences, both “crunch vs. fluff” and “roleplaying vs. roll-playing” are definitional gambits meant to lend taste preferences the appearance of objective superiority. They legitimize the parts of play that the framer likes and delegitimize the bits that bore him.

If this was just a false dichotomy, we could argue people out of it, and teach them all to enjoy the entire cookie, like most of the player base does. Really, though, one small but significant chunk of the player base comes alive only for the rulesy stuff, and another digs only the narrative bits.

When designing for a niche audience, you can sidestep the issue by cranking the dial to one side of the spectrum or the other. Monte, along with the rest of the DNDNext team, faces the challenge that comes with the stewardship of roleplaying’s flagship product—to strike the ideal balance between the two tendencies.